What Bill Greider really wrote about newspapers

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Last week I cited from memory what I thought was a story in William Greider‘s 1992 book Who Will Tell the People about newspapers and their security guards. The point was that in the old days any old nut off the street could walk in and harangue the reporters, while now he’d be stopped at the door. Anyway, I went home and looked through the book and could find no mention of newspaper security guards. I called Greider (who taught the one and only journalism class I ever took) and he said the story did square with his experience, so he must have told it to me in person at some point.

But that’s not why I’m writing another post. I’m writing another post because I want to call attention to the book’s fascinating account of the changes in the newspaper business during Greider’s career, which–while conspicuously devoid of security guards–ought to be required reading for today’s journalists and their critics.

I’ve generally got no problem with people dumping on the “mainstream media.” Like any big, powerful institution, the MSM have lots of flaws, many of which are only becoming apparent now with the rise of online alternatives. I get defensive, though, when people suggest that the established media have gotten dramatically worse over time. Certainly, publications have their ups and downs, and some really great ones have gone out of business. Having to fill all those hours on the cable-TV news channels also inevitably breeds a lot of mediocrity and nonsense. But to impute that there was some halcyon moment in the past when all reporters were investigative reporters and the White House press corps would have stopped a president from going to war is just ignorant nonsense.

Anyway, the chapter in Greider’s book titled “Angle of Vision” is the opposite of ignorant nonsense. It’s a deeply informed analysis of what changed about newspapers during his career that explains why so many people think the media have gotten worse. For those who know him only as a Nation magazine columnist, or don’t know him at all, Bill can be absolutely brilliant at weaving together strands of economics, sociology, psychology, and plain old reporting into grand sagas of how the world really fits together. You don’t have to always agree with his conclusions to appreciate the work. (To get a sense of how little Greider and I agree on some things, check out our dueling Milton Friedman obits. His–which you need a Nation subscription to read to the end–was headlined Friedman’s Cruel Legacy. Mine was Milton Friedman: Usually right, and usually victorious.)

Back to the story: While he was in college in the 1950s, Greider worked two summers as a reporter at the Cincinnati Post. The Post was (and is, until it shuts down in December) the city’s afternoon daily.

In Greider’s telling, the Cincy Post “was parochial and shallow, with a short attention span and a charming randomness in its coverage.” But it had one great virtue:

Like its reporters, the newspaper was frankly and relentlessly “of the people” and it practiced a journalism of honest indignation on behalf of their political grievances. Some of these were pedestrian complaints and some were quite shocking abuses of public office. But there was never any doubt in the tone and style of the Cincinnati Post that it meant to speak for a certain segment of Cincinnatians–mainly those who did not have much status or power themselves.

Two decades later, Greider found himself working for the Washington Post. His fellow reporters there were a vastly more sophisticated, worldly, and talented lot than those in Cincinnati. For a time, in Greider’s telling from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s, the paper was a hotbed of experimentation, innovation and even rebellion. But after that, and particularly after its competitor the Washington Star folded in 1981, the Post became steadily more earnest, middle-of-the-road, and deferential to those in positions of power. It also became vastly more prosperous. Writes Greider: “A monopoly enterprise typically uses its political clout, not to challenge authority, but to protect its monopoly.”

That, in the end, was what had gone wrong. Most newspapers had become local monopolies, and as such no longer wanted to be identified with any particular segment of the population. Their reporters were smart, well-educated, and reasonably well-paid (the well-paid part was and is true, I should emphasize, only at the biggest metropolitan dailies), but most had no interest in fighting for their readers’ interests.

Facing a more competitive market, many magazines did retain that attitude of fighting for the reader–and Greider left the Post to work for one, Rolling Stone. But the economics of the magazine business are such that the most sought-after readers are anything but “those who [do] not have much status or power themselves.”

Greider closes the chapter in Who Will Tell the People by pining for a newspaper that “splits the difference” between the old Cincinnati Post and the new Washington Post. “I imagine a newspaper that is both loyal and smart, that approaches daily reality from the perspective of its readers, then uses its new sophistication to examine power on their behalf.”

That actually sounds a bit like the little media empire that Josh Marshall is building at TPM Media. (I highlight TPM because it actually produces original reporting on a daily basis, which is not so true of most blogs.) True, the readers Marshall and his minions are standing up for are, if the comments in TPM Muckraker and TPM Cafe are any indication, a not-so-benighted mass of well-educated policy wonks and political hacks. But TPM definitely is a new kind of media enterprise that blends the smart and the loyal.

My sense is that many newspapers (and some magazines, like the one I work for) are also now involved in a struggle to reidentify with their readers–because the whole monopoly thing isn’t really working anymore. This new economic reality is also forcing them to cut back on foreign and domestic bureaus and other elements of what made them “smart,” so I don’t want to be too sanguine here. But the media’s Olympian era does seem to be coming to a close, and that can’t be all bad. Although I don’t think we’ll be getting rid of our security guards, at least not as long as we can afford them.

Update: Here is a 2005 Greider essay on the topic.